Story and photos by John Gunnell
When Doug Herbst was in the fifth grade, his father would pick him up at school in a bright red ’31 Ford hot rod. The Model A roadster had a 390-cid Ford V-8, a four-speed transmission, yellow flames, a white interior and a roll bar.
“To say my 10-year-old buddies were impressed is an understatement,” Herbst recalled. But hot rods weren’t in the cards for Herbst, at least right away.
“When I graduated high school in 1979, you could buy muscle cars for $500-$600,” Herbst said, “so I got into Mopars and then I got into racing.” Herbst became a well-known race car driver in the Wausau, Wis., area and later took a job fixing trucks at a GMC dealership there. Eventually, he swung back to hot rodding and swapped off a few Mopars for — you guessed it — a Ford hot rod.
Actually, Herbst swapped the cars for a professional build on a ’34 Ford five-window coupe that had been in his family for years. Herbst’s father-in-law, Dennis “Denny” Heil, bought the coupe from his friend Shaggy in 1969. Shaggy had owned the car since the early ’60s and had drag raced it for a couple of years.
“After Denny got the car, he drove it for a couple of years, then disassembled it,” Herbst said. “After he passed away in 1997, I bought the car from my mother-in-law.”
Herbst’s racing buddy Rich Bickle Jr. completed the build in 2007. Herbst told Bickle he wanted a car with the appearance of a hot rod built in 1960-1962. The result looks “old school.” The resulting build lacks any new parts on the fenderless five-window; only parts that could possibly be scoured from a Ford, Lincoln and Mercury were used.
The coupe has a full-race flathead V-8 built by Rich Bickle Sr., who’s considered a Ford flathead guru. Bickle Sr. put a crank from a ’49-’53 flathead in the 239-cid Merc mill and bored it .060 to 264 cubic inches. He added two Holley two-barrel carburetors and a full-race cam, plus headers with cutouts and a genuine ’34 Ford radiator that Glen-Ray Radiators of Wausau built out of three different radiators. It uses a generator with internals from an early-’60s Ford in a ’46 housing.
For stopping duty, ’40 Lincoln binders put the brakes on the coupe. A ’40 Lincoln rear can be found out back with 4.11:1 gears, plus the coupe sports Houdaille rear friction shocks, a torque tube and a ’39 Ford gearbox. All of the gauges except the unit that measures fuel were installed by Shaggy back in the day. The coupe also has a ’50 Ford pickup steering column and ’52 Ford passenger car hanging pedals.
Herbst found it easy to resist chopping and channeling the car. “I wanted it built as a highboy, because it was just so nice a car,” he said. “To have a genuine original Ford body in this day and age and chop and channel it is to me — well, I’d buy a fiberglass one if I wanted to do something like that.”
The car is a fantasy come true for Herbst. Flashing back to fifth grade, he remembers that his father also owned a ‘32 Ford highboy convertible. “Dad said that car would be mine one day,” Herbst recalled. “But, things got tight and he had to sell it to support the family. I understood it had to go, but you just don’t forget and I held onto the idea of owning a highboy until I bought the ’34.”
Herbst’s father lived the era in the ’50s. “He said I should think about having a hot rod,” Herbst said. “He told me it’s a different form of automotive fun. So, when I had the opportunity to buy this car from my mother-in-law, I jumped at it. Dad always said having a hot rod would be another chapter in my life.”
Herbst says he likes that he’s never seen another car exactly like his. He has seen cars with similarities, but when he looks close, they are all different. For instance, Herbst went to the MSRA’s Back to the 50’s show in Minnesota and did not see another car painted the gold color of his car in a sea of 12,000 vehicles.
“You don’t see that color at shows anymore,” he noted. “I saw it in the ‘Rod & Custom 50th Anniversary’ book on cars at California hot rod shows in the early ’60s. Gold Metalflake was popular color back then, but it faded in popularity by the mid to late ’60s.” Herbst said the color is coming back on magazine cars, but he still doesn’t see it on the cars where he lives.
As good as it looks, Herbst admits driving the car for a long distance can be a “less than ideal situation.” He says the longest he has driven with the 4.11:1 gears and the three-speed transmission is 60 miles.
“With the friction shocks and buddy springs, it rides rough,” he said. If he’s going to a distant show, he trailers it.
Herbst said his daughter will probably own the car someday. “Whatever she does with it is her decision,” he said, “but it is not going to leave our family any time soon.”
If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. E-mail us at email@example.com
Bruce McCalley’s masterpiece Model T Ford reference book is back in print, in limited quantities. The ultimate Tin Lizzie reference.